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The path to net-zero won’t be pleasant


4 min read

There is a big secret hiding in plain sight at the heart of the United Kingdom’s energy policy.

Simply, establishing a reliable, all-electric net-zero emissions economy and society has scarcely begun. We are in the foothills of a journey involving major upheavals in the economy, industry, lifestyles, living standards, finance, planning and probably politics. 

Embedded in the public mind is that the UK is already nearly ‘halfway’ to net-zero, with a renewable, low-carbon and self-sufficient electricity supply, and indeed is ahead of others in reducing carbon emissions. 

So that’s alright then? No, it is not. 

What gets overlooked, ignored, or conveniently forgotten, is that electric power provides less than one-fifth of the UK’s total energy usage. It is the rest of our energy needs, the other four-fifths or more, almost entirely from oil and gas, that has to be replaced by clean energy. 
Assume optimistically that much greater efficiency, smarter growth and conservation will cut the growth of UK energy demand from what it would otherwise be in 10 or 20 years’ time by, say, 20 per cent. 

The nation’s energy security is going to be seriously compromised unless new investment on a truly colossal scale can be mobilised

That still leaves some 60 to 70 per cent of fossil fuel energy flows needing to be converted to clean electricity by 2050 or an earlier date. Even with optimism, that’s another three times present electricity output, or a minimum of about another 200 gigawatts (GW) on top of the present 65GW. 

Can it be done? The answer is yes, but only if a lot of new realism is brought into the energy transition process and major delusions are driven out of it, such as the impression that we are already halfway there; and only if it is accepted that the nation’s energy security is going to be seriously compromised unless new investment on a truly colossal scale can be mobilised, much of it at present not even planned, let alone going forward. 

Moreover, most of the finance will have to be found from private sources – domestic and overseas – given all the other demands on public funds, as well as the sheer weight of debt interest on government budgets. But private investment will only come forward for balanced projects with sound returns in a reasonable timescale. This rules out vaguely costed, long-term white elephant schemes, which take more than a decade to complete, such as mammoth nuclear power stations, which are full of risk – global as well as local.

Instead this will require prioritising smaller and cleverer new nuclear power technology. Smaller modular reactors are already being ordered up in many countries around the world, since this is rightly seen as the next stage in nuclear power development, and not just an adjunct to the further ‘replica’ construction of the old gigawatt giants, as energy policymakers here still seem to believe. 

In addition, an almost totally new grid system – four to five times the present capacity – will be necessary to bring greatly expanded wind-sourced electricity onshore, and connect up new nuclear sites with strings of new pylons to deliver it. 

We will also rely heavily on new interconnectors to bring in electricity, and gas, from neighbours at peak times. 

Finally, it will have to be faced, even before all this gets under way, that continued gas-fired electricity will have to remain an essential part of the future net-zero agenda. The resulting unavoidable emissions from this will have to be captured and stored or reused by so-called carbon capture and usage technologies (CCUS). Again, there are several CCUS schemes planned around the UK, but none are yet under way.

Here, as elsewhere, we should have started yesterday, or indeed decades ago. But we didn’t, so we are going to be very, very late in getting there, very reliant on others, and the pathway will be full of surprises, some of them not at all pleasant. 


Lord Howell, Conservative peer and former energy secretary

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